Virus fears grow if China starts rolling back ‘zero COVID’ controls

  • Biggest easing of restrictions since pandemic began
  • City urges citizens to remain vigilant
  • China ill-prepared for case surge, analysts say

BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Dec 8 (Reuters) – As many Chinese embrace new freedoms after abandoning key parts of their strict zero-COVID regime on Thursday, fears are growing over a virus that is largely under control, may run wild quickly

Three years into the pandemic, many in China have been eager for Beijing to start bringing its strict virus precautions in line with the rest of the world, which has largely opened up in an effort to live with the disease.

Those frustrations turned into widespread protests last month, the largest public outcry since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

While not saying it was a response to the protests, some cities and regions are starting to loosen COVID controls, a move that heralds a nationwide easing of rules announced Wednesday by the National Health Commission.

Infected people with mild symptoms can now isolate at home and are no longer required to undergo tests and health checks on the mobile app for various activities, including travel across the country, the NHC said.

Ticket sales to domestic tourist and leisure attractions have soared, state media reported, while some revealed on social media that they had tested positive for the virus — a practice that has previously borne heavy stigma in China.

Others expressed caution.

“I know COVID is not so ‘scary’ now, but it’s still contagious and can cause harm,” said a post on the Weibo platform. “The fear brought to our hearts cannot be easily dissipated.”

“Too many fronts!” said another Weibo user.

China reported 21,439 new local cases of COVID-19 infection on Dec. 12. The 7th fell slightly from the previous day, lower than the peak of 40,052 cases on November 7th. 27. There has been a recent downward trend in cases as authorities across the country have lowered testing requirements.

Multimillion-dollar projects to build testing labs across the country, from Shandong province in the east to Sichuan province in the southwest, have been canceled as China reduces demand for testing, according to The Paper, a Shanghai government-backed news outlet.

Stocks in China and Hong Kong lifted Asian shares on Thursday, as the still-cautious steps toward reopening were seen as giving the world’s second-largest economy a chance to regain momentum.

The yuan, which has also recovered some ground against the dollar in recent weeks, was little changed on Thursday.

Lack of preparation

Shanghai, China’s most populous city, has endured one of the country’s longest and toughest lockdowns, removing the need to enter a restaurant or entertainment venue for a COVID test on Thursday.

The lack of reference to China’s “Zero COVID” policy in recent announcements has raised suspicions that the term is becoming invalid as the government gradually pushes the country toward co-existence with the virus.

Senior officials have also been softening their stance on the dangers posed by the virus.

But some cities are urging residents to remain vigilant amid new, looser controls.

“The general public should maintain a good awareness of personal protection and be the first person responsible for their own health,” Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, said in a letter to citizens.

It urged residents to wear masks, practice social distancing, seek medical attention for fever and other symptoms of COVID, especially older adults, and get vaccinated.

Some analysts and medical experts say China is unprepared for a major surge in infections, in part because of low vaccination rates among vulnerable groups and the elderly, and a fragile healthcare system.

“It (China) may have to pay for its delay in adopting a ‘living with COVID’ approach,” Nomura analysts said in a note on Thursday.

Nomura said China’s infection rate was only around 0.13%, “far below the level needed for herd immunity”.

Feng Zijian, a former official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told China Youth Daily that as much as 60% of the population in China could be infected in the first large wave before it stabilizes.

“Ultimately, about 80%-90% of the population will be infected,” he said.

China Newsweek, a state-owned magazine, quoted health experts on Thursday as saying China could face a large-scale outbreak within the next one to two months.

China’s COVID-related death toll now stands at 5,235, a fraction of its 1.4 billion population and extremely low by global standards. Some experts have warned that the death toll could exceed 1.5 million if the exit is too hasty.

But even with the dangers, for many, life must go on.

“It’s impossible to completely kill this virus, maybe we can just live with it and hope it turns into a flu,” said Yan, a 22-year-old unemployed Beijing resident, who said he hoped the further opening of China’s economy would help him find a job.

Reporting by Ella Cao, Bernard Orr, Ryan Woo and Albee Zhang with Newsroom Beijing and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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